Preface: Last week, Ha’aretz reporter Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy Of Israel, asked readers where the long-awaited Palestinian Godot is (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.586945). This opinion piece inspired me to think about the next iconic Israel leader. This reflection is what followed.
Whether left or right, secular or religious, Israelis can agree that their country is at a crossroads. Questions of the limits of religion vis-a-vis democracy remain tragically unanswered. Israel’s borders remain uncertain as the divided coalition government wades cautiously through the next round of peace negotiations with the newly-formed Palestinian unity government.
It is not the prospect of another failed peace summit that scares me. I am frightened by the chilly thought that Israel marches forward without the right leader at its helm.
Israel has come a long way for such a young country. The economy continues to grow rapidly. Birth rates are up. After years of brutal terror attacks, its cities are safe. Parents can rest a little bit easier when they send their kids to school in the morning. Yet Israel lacks the iconic leader who would define its present and future. Show me an Israeli politician who possesses Begin’s rhetorical wit, Rabin’s boldness, Ben-Gurion’s fierce tenacity. Israel remains, as Shavit wrote in My Promised Land, an over-budget movie with no director. Where is the leader it needs and deserves?
Since Israel’s most recent elections, I’ve seen glimmers of hope. There have been impressive speeches on the parliament floor on the importance of draft reform. As such, legislation on compulsory military service has been expanded to give ultra-religious Jewish communities an equal share of the burden of protecting the country. I’ve seen fascinating exchanges between Jewish and non-Jewish members of parliament. On one occasion, an ultra-religious Jew recited a quotation in Arabic to protest a new bill on electoral reform. A prominent Palestinian-Israeli politician responded with a kind word of thanks in Yiddish. But as swept up as I was by these instances, I continue to wait for the icon. So, in my desperate search for this leader, I have elected to venture beyond the political realm.
There are two men who have the potential to carve for themselves a place among Israel’s greats. Ari Shavit is a journalist at Ha’aretz and is based in Tel Aviv. Rabbi Daniel Gordis lives in Jerusalem, where he is on faculty at Israel’s first liberal arts college. He writes a thoughtful weekly column for The Jerusalem Post.
A baritone-voiced Sabra, Ari Shavit is hardened by years of occupation and war and deeply affected by the history of the Jewish people. He writes of the future he believes we must reach in My Promised Land. Urging the end of the occupation and the establishment of a viable and secure Palestinian state in the West Bank, he is certain that Israel will at last find elusive peace should it make this difficult decision.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, on the other hand, is by no means a Sabra. Born and raised in America, he emigrated to Israel with his wife and three young children to Israel about twenty years ago. Since his arrival, he has written book after book chronicling the searing pain and awe-inspiring beauty of his life thus far in the Jewish State. He writes lovingly and articulately of his country, its past and its future. Emphasizing the importance of the two-state solution, he longs for the day when his children won’t have to do reserve duty, and when their children won’t have to serve in the military upon reaching the age of 18. He dreams of a genuine partner for peace.
I often find myself daydreaming of Shavit and Gordis arguing passionately on the Knesset floor. Shavit quotes a beautiful passage from an early work of Amos Oz. Gordis responds with a recitation of Psalms. Each and every time I emerge from this fantasy, I cannot stop wondering why these men are not already household names.
Ultimately, the only thing standing between this dynamic duo and a great Israeli future is a push. But only the Israeli people, who were once called, “a plucky bunch,” can give this firm nudge. After all, both men seem to prefer their present occupations to careers in politics, at least for the time being.
Yet Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism, did not aspire to spearhead a political movement at his ripe young age. It took a corrupt trial of a falsely accused and wrongly convicted French Jewish military officer to set Herzl on his path. Nor were Yitzhak Rabin’s ambitions political in his youth. Hoping to be an irrigation engineer, he answered the call when Israel faced war. And so began his incredible story. These two were urged forward into the annals of history by circumstance. Let us be that circumstance, that causal mechanism, for Shavit and Gordis.
How will we call upon the leaders of the future? How will we challenge Shavit and Gordis to become legends beyond our, and perhaps even their own, comprehension?
Here’s to finding the answer. It will be challenging, but I am confident we can rise to the challenge as did Herzl and Rabin before us. I pray that this is the final push, that the work of Shavit and Gordis will spawn generations of great leaders and spark a future we can be proud of.